Sunday, March 4, 2018

Pattern and Surprise in Fiction

The relationship between convention and deviation, expectation and revelation drives fiction. That’s exhibited in the pattern of story that’s remained stable for centuries: conflict…development…resolution. Obviously, though, tweak the specifics and that pattern feels different every time. 

Dozens of other patterns also underlie fiction: the structure of the paragraph, the alternation between scene and narrative, the major character arcs, and the moods, moments, or memories that echo each other. 

All those components of fiction involve reader expectations, whether fulfilling them or adding tension and suspense by credibly failing to fulfill them. 

Lisa Cron’s superb blog—“A Reader’s Manifesto: 12 Hardwired Expectations Every Reader Has” (October 9, 2014)—identifies the most crucial reader expectations. What could be more important than how writers handle focus, empathy, pace, and plot? 

Yet, in every instance, the presentation of setting or symbol affects reader response to those critical aspects of fiction that Cron lists.

Tip: Revisit without merely repeating. This satisfies the desire for recurrence plus change.

So if you return readers to a completely parallel or symmetrical exchange, issue, or location, you’ll defeat reader expectations every time. If Taffy again confers with her mom about her husband’s unemployment, something must differ. Maybe Mom thinks it’s time to leave him, or hire him in dad’s factory, or have Taffy work there herself. 

Otherwise, the story feels static. And Jessica Page Morrell is exactly right that every scene captures a progression toward fulfillment of arc. How can that happen if the characters simply repeat what they said before with the same objects in the same place?

Nor can even a conversation with higher stakes occur in an unaltered location. Maybe Ernesto proposes to Tamilla--his gorgeous, ambivalent girlfriend—in a rowboat drifting on moonlit Lake Emerald. However magnificent Lake Emerald, readers will balk at returning there if everything looks identical. Instead, maybe thick storm clouds now hide the moon. Is this boat too old and creaky to be safe? Disgusted with Tamilla’s affairs, perhaps Ernesto’s ready to drown her? Or maybe she’s the one who wants to send a body somewhere the police won’t easily find it.

The need for modification also applies to symbolism. If Gram gave Ernestine an exquisite hand-woven shawl, don’t simply over and over mention the shawl—or the chandelier or the tennis racket. Instead, use symbolic objects to represent how the plot thickens. Does the wood stove scorch the shawl? Must the impoverished family sell their chandelier? Despite the racket that belonged to Albert's renown uncle, does the boy still lose the state championship? 

Things don’t stay the same, though in life, it might feel as if they do. Fiction readers seek the credibility and pleasure of experiencing both the pressure of time and the possibility of growth and catharsis. Meeting those apparently conflicting expectations of familiarity and evolution may not be as difficult as it seems. As Susan Dennard reminds, 

You’re a reader too, so when you go back and read your story from start to finish, you’ll be able to sense if you’re meeting expectations or not.

And variation is a terrific tool for accomplishing that.

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